The Busker Sisters

Years later -- the two of us playing at our cousin Emily's wedding in June 2011
Years later — the two of us playing at our cousin Emily’s wedding in June 2011

Throughout our teen years, my sister and I formed a musical duo called Cadenza.  I played violin and Sarah Jane played cello. Aided by the fact that we lived in cottage country, music became our main summer job for a number of years. We played at weddings and receptions every weekend. We serenaded guests at gallery openings, outdoor art shows, and private parties. I must say, it was a pretty sweet job for two teenage girls. We got paid to gawk at gorgeous brides and whisper about the cute grooms and nibble delicacies from the hors d’oeuvres trays. We saw beautiful weddings, happy weddings, tense weddings, awkward weddings.

As fun and easy as playing wedding music was, we actually made most of our money busking on Saturday mornings in front of the general store in our small town. The store is a famous attraction in the area and the owner loved having us set up our instruments outside the front entrance and play Celtic fiddle music for an hour or two. He said it actually attracted customers, who would drive by car or boat from their cottages to do their shopping at the time they knew there would be live music. I’d prop open my violin case in front of the music stand and, lo and behold, the cash would pour in. (As I learned more tricks of the trade, I realized that we benefited greatly from Canada’s $1 and $2 coins, since people are most likely to toss in change, rather than open their wallets for bills.) Along with the money came countless smiles on people’s faces. Everyone was delighted to be entertained while grocery shopping.

At first, I felt uncomfortable about busking. Sometimes when I mentioned it to fellow teenagers, I’d get a sneering, condescending response: “Busking? Like, begging on the street? O-kaaaay.” (You know how nasty teenagers can be.) It left me feeling embarrassed. But, as my bank account grew fat for relatively few hours of “wiggling my fingers,” I started to feel proud of my entrepreneurial endeavors. I was most certainly not begging; rather, I was using a well-honed skill to earn well-deserved money, instead of flipping burgers at McDonalds or mowing lawns all summer long for less than minimum wage. Plus, all the adults loved it. It led to countless more gigs and, as I mentioned before, widespread appreciation and general happiness.

One such appreciative person was an elderly man who stood watching us for a long time. Finally he approached and told us how meaningful our music. “My wife would love to hear you play,” he said, “but she’s in the chronic care ward in the Huntsville hospital.” He paused for a moment, and then asked suddenly, “Is there any chance you’d go there to play for her? It would mean so much.” Sarah Jane and I looked at each other and nodded, “Sure, we’d go.” His face burst into a smile. Later that day, our mom drove us to the hospital and we followed a dancing Mr. Orr through the hospital. There we proceeded to play an hour-long concert for a roomful of patients that Mr. Orr rounded up and wheeled into the room. Most of the people were too sick to show much reaction to our music, but I know they appreciated it. It was worth it just to see Mr. Orr’s joy. The next week, there was a letter from him in the newspaper thanking us for sharing our music.

Experiences like that are what made busking so fun. Every weekend, something unexpected happened, whether it was a random encounter with an old family friend or a Celtic dancer who got up to join us. Sometimes fellow musicians would give us their demo CDs and offer encouragement. At other times, a weepy listener would tell us of a connection a certain song had to a memory in their past. Busking taught me that music has an incredibly magical quality to it and an ability to connect people unlike anything else. Sometimes I wish I could still do it, but I no longer live near my sister and, well, I’ve grown up so it would feel different now. Maybe this summer we’ll go do it one day just for fun.


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